A review of “The Technological Society” by Jacques Ellul.
From the 19th century on we stand in a world entirely saturated in technique. French philosopher and theologian coins this new age of society the “Technological Society” in the 1950s. Ellul writes to current and future citizens in this new society about the complete inundation of technique in all parts of life; economic, the public state, and the human. He writes about the advancement of technique eclipsing the sacred and becoming the new God. In a verbose and heavily reasoned style Ellul lays out how technique has been here, that science had to bring humans to a point of initializing technique, and that it has now transcended the barriers it was once held in. Technique is the new omnipotence, it “clarifies, rationalizes, and arranges”
Ellul writes that technique has always been with us in that we have needed it for survival, such as in hunting and gathering. Ellul’s working definition of technique is this: “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity”. Applying this to the aforementioned example, take gathering, a gatherer knows how to get to the place that has the berries, knows what qualifies as a “good” berry, knows how to effectively transport them back, how to cook them, etc. Technique is the steps it takes to perform these actions the most efficiently. This happens naturally in humans, hunting, gathering, weapon making. Ellul shows this affects societies as well. The Romans were masters of social technique as they were realists that sought to bring discipline to civil and military settings with the utmost efficiency. It was not a pluralization of techniques, but a constant honing of tried techniques that made them so successful and organized. Technique benefited the roman man but did not replace him. Ellul goes on to write about various time periods having more or less technique than others before getting to the 18th and 19th century and the focus on the machine. Here you can find the christian media reviews.
With the proliferation of the machine, man seeks to standardize their tasks and actions so they can perform more efficiently. For example, the steam engine was created, more so out of pure discovery, then it was iterated upon and more advancements were made. The proliferation of the machine allowed technique to embody this entity, and then transcend it to the rest of society. In the 19th century, technique began being a part of man’s life. Suddenly, there was less of a focus on the humanistic and more so on the efficient. In science, the focus became not pure discovery, but many technicians using more techniques to seek greater breakthroughs, the time for pure discovery was past. In education, these leads to a focus on ever increasing performance, but not necessarily an end result. In man himself, all his actions have been taken over by technique. Humanities in learning is no longer important as the rise of the Technological Society requires people that instructed in how to be technicians, not intellectuals. It’s important to note two things about Ellul’s views from these examples. First, unlike Luddites or the Amish, Ellul believes that machines are not inherently bad even though they ushered in technique. Technique began with machines but transcended the physical processes to become man’s activities. The second thing to note is that Ellul does not say whether the technological man is better off or worse than the non-technological man. Instead of pushing forth a prescriptive agenda, he is focusing on a descriptive sociological philosophy and view of the current modern technological man. This description, laid out in his terms is:
“…the way in which an autonomous technology is in process of taking over the traditional values of every society without exception, subverting and suppressing these values to produce at last a monolithic world culture in which all non-technological difference and variety is mere appearance.”
Ellul is convinced that technique has taken over man to the point that it is integrated into all facets of society. As one of the founders of media ecology this argument is unsurprising as the definition of the study media ecology is the study of “media as an environment”. His arguments and evidences are well thought out and he claims that since the introduction to the Technological Society all social phenomenon has come about because technology. Considering man was born into this age and we can go to another age of not technique Ellul is the best at making us aware of our surroundings and underpinning currents. Technique guides the social structures of today and we should be wise to note where it is effecting in our education, religion, and definition as man. Ellul is neutral on the stance and asks us to think about how we get to the point of complete car automation or selective birth only. Those are the final questions he asks.
Ellul’s greatest lend to trust is that he is descriptively addressing what happens in every facet of our lives and is not answering a question about what to do. In today’s society we must take a look at what Ellul has pointed out and begin to change back the ends into means and the means back into ends for certain social structures. The goal for certain institutions, the education and sacred acts of worship should not have the influence of the means turned to an end by technique. Media and technique has a bias and they change society, but the sacred religious space, Christians, has the opportunity to see these underpinnings seek to change them. The ends and the means must go back to how they once were, not the (efficient)means to do something being the highest end. I am now aware of the Technological Society around me, and this calls for a deep look at what can change from the most efficient to the most uplifting and relational. In this post 20th century, we study the Technological Society from within it, because it is part of us, and is us.